A glimpse into the Inferno from which Man, the Pigmy, brings forth the Giant, Steel
SO LONG as I live, I shall always think of Sydney, Nova Scotia, as the City of Steel. Fundamentally, I suppose Sydney owes its existence to coal, to iron, and to geography Coal mines are all around it. Sydney, the port, lies at the tip of Cape Breton—that island which geographers call “The Long Wharf” of the North Atlantic. The iron is just across the straits in Newfoundland.
Industrially, the city —
owes its importance to the fact that it is the heart and centre of the British Empire Steel Corporation — that manufacturing giant which mines coal by the millions of tons; turns iron into steel at two great plants, the one at Sydney and the other at New Glasgow, N.S.; possesses a fleet of twenty-five vessels; operates two railways; owns a shipyard and dry dock at Halifax; builds railway cars at Trenton, N.S.; makes wire and nails at Saint John, N.B.; makes more wire, and rolls steel at Montreal, and employs 20,000 Canadians, to whom it pays out $25,000,000 a year in wages and salaries.
But, to me, Sydney is the City of Steel. Down along the waterfront the very earth itself is built of the spewings from blast furnaces; each year new land is made with the accumulation of slag, and dark, drab banks of rubble jut out into the sea. By day, a pall of smoke hovers low over the steel plant and its environs; by night the smoke cloud gives place to a pyrotechnic display such as the gods might have devised for their entertainment, an intensified exhibition of the aurora borealis ;done in red. The sky, for a momen^fd^rk, glows luridly for miles from monstrous puffs of flame, as if some old volcano had awakened and were belching forth its fumes. At night, too, the sounds of the mills are intensified. The growling of engines, the rumble of travelling cranes, the thunder of tumbling ore, detonations like the roar of heavy artillery all chorus in wild cacophany. And over it all, the weird incandescence of molten metal being poured into ladles, of slag being poured on the dumps.
Seen from afar at night it looks like some mad artist’s conception of the skyline of hell, like a workshop of demons.
“In Case You Fall Into a Furnace”
VI THEN I walked into the office of the presiding genius ** of this inferno, H. J. Kelley, who happens to be general manager of the British Empire Steel Corporation, and suggested that I would like to see what it was all about, he was cordiality itself.
“Fine,” he said, “a trip through the plant is an education. One can spend days there and still not see it all. I’ll arrange to have a policeman show you through this afternoon.”
“A policeman !” I was mystified. Still, it might be that they thought it likely I’d run off with a few steel rails or ingots. “Why the policeman?”
Instantly, the masque of friendship was succeeded by that of calldjis and hardboiled efficiency.
“We’Send a policeman to watch and guide, and before starting byt you must sign a paper.”
“Frees 'Ü£ of any and all responsibility,” he said, “in case you fall into a furnace.”
Number One Gate of the Sydney Steel Plant.
/There is a little house by the gate and a big man in
Louis ARTHUR CUNNINGHAM
uniform in the little house. He was to be my cicerone on this looksee into the doings of a mile or so of noisy, smoking mills, smoke-billowing chimneys, huge cranes, tall towers, little cars running up and down very steep inclines like Swiss railways; funny-looking iron buckets big enough to hold ten men, and a host of monstrous contrivances that made one think one wa¡ being transported into a Jules Verne world of Martian giants.
My guide, he who would play Vergil to my Dante, was W. H. Packer, a Cornishman—you could tell that in an instant if you’d read Eden Phillpots; a soldier for thirty years and a lover and advocate of the sane ways of peace among all nations.
“That’s the Quebec Spur.” Mr. Packer indicated a mountain of metal that looked like the accumu-
lated wreckage of all the automobiles made to date. “We call it that because after the Quebec Bridge disaster this plant bought up the metal for scrap.”
Then there was other scrap in variety infinite, from broken-down sewing-machines to borrowed lawn-mowers. There were mammoth piles of pigs—that is, pig iron roughly in the shape of small swine. This pig iron is made from the crude ore, its first refining, and the ground over which we walked was made from the slag or waste of the smelting process. Vessels used to dock at places that are now well back from tidewater.
“Those are skulls,” said he, casually indicating what did look like skulls magnified a thousand times. “The big ladles into which they pour the metal, cake up like the bowl of a pipe and are reamed out by removing the cake or skull entire.”
A number of workmen were busy right there about the genial task of “smashing skulls.” This is done by hoisting up a huge weight high in air, and dropping it with terrible force upon the skull, which flies into fragments that are picked up by big electro-magnets capable of lifting about five or six tons.
“We’ll start at the beginning,” said my guide, “where the ore comes in.”
The Blast Furnaces
'T'HERE were many tall towers at the piers, webbed L structures sticking high up in air. The vessels come from Port-au-port, where the limestone is, and from Wabana in Newfoundland, bringing ore, before the ice forms. The plant must lay in a sufficient supply of these raw materials to last all winter.
The ore looks just like big reddish rocks; the limestone like gray piles of stone such as you see waiting to be crushed into roads. The ore-boats are unloaded by “grabs,” which are similar to clam-shell dredgers and, dipping down into the hold, grab up five tons or so of ore twice every minute. This is dumped in large cars on a trestle and carried to the ore dumps outside the blast furnaces. The ships bring about 10,500 tons each, and can be discharged in from
ten to fourteen hours. The ore has an iron content of about fifty-two per cent.
Across the slip from the ore-dock was another string of towers whereby rails, the finished product, are loaded at the rate of 1,400 tons in less than ten hours.
We left the loading piers and proceeded through the yard toward the blast furnaces.
“This isn’t very dangerous,” said my guide. “It gets more so as you go farther.”
This reflection, coupled with the memory of my signing away on that little yellow paper, all rights, including the Scandinavian, on my charred self, should I make a misstep, helped not at all. But two little cars or skips, running up and down an incline or skipway as steep as a church roof, cheered me up. These, I learned, carry coke from the great coking-plant, and the raw materials used in iron making—ore and limestone—to the top of the blast furnace.
The stuff is being poured in continually in this order —limestone, ore, coke. There are two valves or bells at the top of the furnace, which prevent the escape of gases and distribute the stock in the blast furnace. The limestone furnishes the flux to carry off the impurities from the ore. Hot air or blast is blown into the furnace through twelve water-cooled nozzles or tuyeres. This air is pre-heated to about 1,100 deg. Fahr., and exercises eleven pounds pressure per square inch. Inside the furnace during this smelting operation the heat is about 3,500 deg. Fahr. The gas generated here is later used for heating.
We climbed a narrow stairway into the Cast House, where the blast furnace was. Never had I seen such a sight nor ever heard such a roaring and rustling and rushing sound as was there. The ground underfoot, I saw with unpleasant surprise, bubbled and moved, like the floor of a morass, in patches of molten metal, whitehot and elsewhere glowing redly among the drab ash. Above me loomed the huge circular furnace, eighty-five feet high, generating terrific and ghastly heat. It is water-cooled, closed with clay shot into its orifice by a clay-gun, and opened or tapped every four hours with a drill.
This furnace had just been tapped off, the molten iron running down a river on the right, the slag down another on the left and each stream led off by tributaries either to the brick-lined iron ladles holding twenty tons or the cinder-pots below. This was residue, this that formed puddles of solid fire, over which we had to step to get close to the blast furnace. Monstrous it was, and this gray waste on which we stood was the reality of what I often in my imaginings have pictured the floor of legendary hell to be. Vapor and smoke and the grayish, ashy smell of molten metal are there, and it is a striking thought that the steel blades we use so carelessly—the scissors, the knives—had their first inception in such Titan labor as this. To make one ton of this iron, there go into the blast furnace 2,350 pounds of coke, two tons
of ore and 1,650 pounds of limestone.
The blast furnaces have a maximum capacity of 1,500 tons of iron a day.
The Open Hearths
WE PASSED out of this, the first circle of the Inferno, and there, on the outside, were several of the great ladles that had been de-skulled and rebricked, being dried out by the expedient of burning gas in them from the blast furnace operation—just as one burns brandy or alcohol in the bowl of a new pipe to make it sweet. But the purpose of this is to dry the mortar, which otherwise would not hold when the metal was poured in.
The gas burned roaringly as we passed between two of these flaming ladles, set uncomfortably close together.
Next, the powerhouse. Everything there was clean and spotless; big generators hummed. I saw the five old-type steam engines that were used up to 1912 to compress air for the blast furnaces. They have great, clumsy wheels and stand over fifty feet above the ground. Many times smaller, and giving an interesting contrast, are the three little turbo-blowers, which today accomplish more efficiently the same amount of work.
And now the second circle—the open hearths. Here the heat was such that the atmosphere of the blast furnace seemed like a cool breeze in comparison. The open hearths go up as high as 2,700 or 3,000 deg. Fahr, before the brickwork burns.
This is called Open Hearth Number One. There are ten fifty-ton furnaces.
In Number Two are two of 100 tons capacity. In this long shadowy shed, floored with powdery ash, the opening and shutting of the furnaces caused lurid lights to wax and wane. At either end of the long string of open hearths is a gas-cage, and these, to equalize the heat,
reverse their supply of gas and air every twenty minutes, sending their terrific fire into the hearths. Here is an apparatus, the charging-machine, which seems endowed with powers far more uncanny than those that life can give. It moves on wheels, its great ram slides out, seizes a big box of scrap, limestone—raw materials— off its trolley, the oven door is opened by hydraulic power and the ram by revolving and tilting the box which it has thrust forward, charges the furnace.
The metal from the blast furnace, which, mind you, has not yet attained the dignity of steel, only to be arrived at in this inner circle, comes in its ladles to the open hearth steel furnaces and is either kept in a mixer or poured directly into the furnaces.
Here I met a man who had worked in this corner of Hades for twentyfive years. He wasn’t even perspiring; told me he didn’t mind the heat at all. I donned a pair of blue glasses he thoughtfully provided and gazed into the open maw of an oven. The molten mass lost its luridness and looked, to use a delicate simile, like thick cream running in swift rivers. When, after some ten hours, the bath of metal suits the analyst, the furnace is tilted and the steel poured into a ladle taking fifty tons. This is called “tapping a heat.”
Out of this we went into Open Hearth Number One—the third and most fantastic circle.
“This,” said Mr. Packer, “is the danger spot of the plant. Y ou must watch out for the travelling-cranes, the burning metal, the trains, the pits . . .” a number of other things I have since forgotten but did not at the time fail to keep an eye out for. Time was, I believe, when the place averaged a pretty high skill. I stayed elose to my guide.
Here I saw the steel poured and made. The ladle filled with steel is hoisted by a crane and manoeuvred into a position to “Teem” the heat. Through a two-inch hole in the bottom of the ladle the steel is allowed to run into the ingot molds, which are seven feet tall and hold ingots weighing four and a half tons. Samples of the metal have been taken, drilled and tested. The metallurgist knows what he wants and what processing is needed to get it.
We passed beside the white hot ingots, standing like pillars on the ingot-buggies, waiting to be taken away. My guide looked over his shoulder, smiled pleasantly, and said by lip-motion: “If one of these should burst . . .” Soft music of harps.
The ingots in their glowing molds sent off showers of golden sparks like rockets when exploding, shooting them out as fountains would send off water, with beautiful and steady symmetry—a rare sight. The bronzed and swarthy faces of workmen glowed in the white light of the pouring metal; the clank and roar of many machines, the tense throb of burning gas, the ringing thud of sledges hitting the hot steel.
Some forty minutes after pouring, when the molds are sufficiently cool, the ingot is “stripped.” Two lugs in the tapered side of the mold are neatly caught by the ears of the stripper, the mold and ingot are pulled up, and a punch,
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driving down between the ears, pushes the ingot from its mold.
The ingots then go to the “soaking pits,” where they are reheated for further processing.
And so to the Blooming Mill—the fourth circle. Here the ingots, having been reheated and brought to the consistency proper for rolling, are passed through mighty rollers and squeezed from squat forms of seven feet in height to writhing anacondas of steel—twenty, thirty feet and more in length. A man stamps them with a sledge, the guillotine shears or cutter, with sharp ringing, hollow sound, chops them off neatly into blooms of various lengths. These are for shipment, or else are sent on to the rail mill or billet mill, where, as the result of further squeezing and rolling, they dwindle from twenty-four inches square to the size resulting from the final rolling, one and three-quarter inches. It is now called a billet and is cut while in motion into thirty foot lengths by the flying shear. The billets are then laid on cooling beds and taken away to the rod and bar mills for still further “squeezing” and consequent reduction in size. The largest electric motor in Canada drives this mill. It can develop 10,000 horsepower.
The billets, again heated, again rolled and attenuated, become rods and bars. The larger blooms are rolled and shaped into rails and “cambered”; that is, made to cool straight, since, having unequal amounts of metal in head and base, they would not otherwise be straight when cool.
To make wire, the rod is drawn through a die and coiled on a drum. Rod comes in coils, which are sent away on an endless conveyor and travel a quarter-mile underground through a tunnel to cool. You see these coils of rods hanging from hooks on the conveyor, passing in silent and uncanny procession along the outside walls of the mill.
For galvanizing, the wire is first annealed in a hot lead bath; then it goes to the sulphuric acid and water bath, and then to a final hot spelter bath, where it is galvanized. Finally it is wiped.
There are machines which make barbed wire faster than the eye can follow, but the operator gave a slow motion of one of these and I could see the barbs twisted on, and meditated on how many owners of flannel trousers would be saddened this summer thereby.
Next, nails and spikes being turned out in many millions, and little kegs piled mountains high, and here we emerge finally into the light of day again.
“The Pigmy Who Directs”
THE trip through the plant consumed about three hours, but the rest of a lifetime will not serve to eradicate the pictures and impressions there seen as in some fantastic dream. There is beauty, poetry, giant rhythm in all those awful processes. Poetry, even, resides in the men who direct them. The hellish heat does not harden the sentiment, nor arduous labor dull the sensibility. Those who have long worked in these surroundings have grasped their spirit better no doubt than I, who saw them only once and in passage. Here, then, are the impressions of the chief engineer, Alexander Theuerkauf, which will give you the picture in blooms, mayhap, as I have given it you in the not overly refined ore:
“Huge buildings from whose interior comes the sound of titanic struggle.
The wild song of turbo-blowers, indicative of the immense volume of air pumped into the blast furnaces.
Streams of living fire.
The weird hum of electric turbogenerators.
The clatter and roar of the monster blooming mill with its gaping jaws.
The machine gun exhaust of the flying shear in the billet mill.
The scream of the hot saw cutting off the rails.
The Inferno of reheating furnaces with their sizzling billets and blooms.
The fiery serpents and racing ribbons of white hot steel in the rod and bar mills.”
A most gripping and fascinating business, this milling of steel. I went back there that night and watched the furnaces, the pouring slag and rivers of metal, paint the heavens red. It seemed to dwarf all speech, all thought, all feeling save that of awe—awe not for the giant forces there directed and controlled, but for man, the pigmy, who controls and directs.
“Like Sacred Fires Before the Altar of Industry”
AND man, the pigmy, is everywhere, always toiling. The plant is never idle; blast furnaces are kept going on and on, their fiery life lasting four to six years, in which time, like sacred fires before the altar of industry, their flames never die. For if they do, if they cool and crack, it would cost thousands of dollars to put them in shape and start them again.
The men—there are 3,000 of them in the plant—are well trained and skilled now, and accidents are very few. Everywhere are safety-first devices, signs of warning and admonishment to exercise care; not to let familiarity breed any contempt of the creamy rivers of molten metal, the flying, rumbling machines, the gaping pits and snaky twisting steel. They will not be contemned'. They are ever watchful of their prey.
The steel-workers have become artists in their craft. Many of the men trained in the Sydney Mills, Mr. Kelley told me, have gone out to other plants and gained, by their thoroughness and reliability, positions of the greatest trust—keypositions in the making of steel. But in the beginning it was a time of danger.
John Mackley, a keen, good-humored and quiet sort of man, has been fortythree years around blast furnaces and superintendent at the Sydney plant for twenty-five years. He insists the heat of the furnaces is not destructive to a man’s constitution, nor does it preclude one’s attainment to a ripe old age.
“We started here with four furnaces,” he said, “making from 220 to 230 tons of iron each per day. Skilled labor was brought in later from Scotland, but these men did not like the country then; so went home after a few years of it. Then there were many green hands from the district around here, men from Newfoundland, negroes from Alabama. The first heat was made in the open hearths in 1901. And what with unskilled men handling gas and molten metal, the casualties were severe and accidents common.
“Today it’s different. The work around the furnaces no longer calls for much skill on the workman’s part. The hole is closed with a clay gun, opened with an electric drill, and less labor is needed.
In the more gruelling operations of steel manufacture, foreign labor is used; is, in fact, indispensable, as our own people will balk at the lowest forms of labor. So you hear, when the men come forth from work—for in the infernal din of the mills you can hear little—as many tongues as upset the hopes of the Babel Tower’s promoters—the quaint, slow speech of the Highlanders, of whom Cape Breton has full many, still carrying on the strong traditions of their clans; the gutturals of the Czech, the Pole, the Russian.
“Fat’er McDonald,” said one Italian, “is verree clever man. He spika da Inglis, da French, da Pole an’ da Newfoun’lan’ . . . !”
Truly there is much and pleasing variety even in the English spoken and in the traits of the men who speak it. They are a
rugged, good-looking crowd, these sturdy Highlanders and Newfoundlanders, slowspoken, slow-moving, but precise and unshakably determined in all they undertake to do.
“The Economic Backbone of Nova Scotia”
AND the work they do is of far-reaching importance. The Sydney Steel Plant supplies rails, tie-plates and other equipment not only to our Canadian railways, but even to lines like the New York Central, which, in 1928, bought 12,000 tons of steel rails weighing 127 pounds per yard. This was the first occasion on which rails weighing over 105 pounds per yard were manufactured in Canada, but they were made so well that a repeat order was forthwith received from the same purchaser.
In addition to railway track materials, the company produces great quantities of rods, bars, nails, wire; chemical by-products like sulphate of ammonia, much in use as a fertilizer on sugar plantations in the West Indies. In 1928, eighty-eight per cent of the output of the iron and steel products was absorbed by the Canadian market; Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Japan and other countries used up the remaining twelve per cent. 90,000 tons of iron ore from the company’s Wabana Mines were shipped to Germany and the United States.
There was a time when the name of “Besco,” to use the colloquial name of the company, was almost anathema. Even today, when the huge steel plants operate at top speed, when orders pour in thick and fast and general satisfaction reigns among employers and employed, even now and in the Maritime Provinces, of which, in the case of Nova Scotia. anyway, the Besco plant is the economic backbone, the vastness of its operations, its importance to the entire Dominion and to the Empire at large, are hardly realized.
Besco pays out $22,000,000 a year in wages to Nova Scotia workmen alone— an amount equivalent to $42 for each person in the province. The average wage is $1,200 a year. Purchase of materials, payments to the Government, taxes, Workmen’s Compensation and other expenses, total $29,000,000. Some $54,000,000 is disbursed annually, and in any given year the production includes 6,000,000 tons of coal, 1,250,000 tons of iron ore and 335,000 tons of steel products.
Besco’s position is unique in Canada, since all its coal supply is drawn from a radius of about fifteen miles from deposits estimated at a minimum of four billion tons. Of the Wabana ores, quickly transported to Sydney by steamer, the estimated deposit is ten billion tons, of which about one half is judged available. Mr. C. S. Cameron, in “The Iron & Steel Industry of Canada,” says: “Without making allowance for further discoveries that may be made, it seems probable that the Wabana field contains one-third of all the available ore in North America.” The limestone used comes from Point Edward, across the harbor from the steel plant, and from Port-au-port on the west coast of Newfoundland; the dolomite from George’s River, twenty-five miles by rail from Sydney.
A $4,000 Start
THE beginnings of all this form a fascinating chapter in the history of steel. Mr. Francis W. Gray, assistant manager of Besco who has done much valuable research into the coal-mining operations and written excellent accounts thereof, told me a great deal about it.
Back in 1872, in the village of New Glasgow, two Scots, Fraser and Mackay, built a little forging plant called the Hope Iron Works. They had about $4,000, a wealth of hard-headed acumen, skill in
their work and praiseworthy vision. They made iron-fastenings and the like for the sailing-ships then being built in the Maritimes. They grew rapidly and prospered; the business was moved to Trenton, outside of New Glasgow, and called the Nova Scotia Forge Company.
Next came the Nova Scotia Steel Company, formed in 1882. And in 1889, in the open hearth furnaces of this concern were cast the first steel ingots to be made in Canada. In that year the two companies were merged with a capital of about $1,000,000.
The iron ore deposits around New Glasgow were then worked successfully and a blast furnace was built at Ferrona, in Pictou County, by the New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Railway Company. A railway was constructed to connect the plant with the ore deposits and coal mines near Stellarton. Coke ovens were erected. Then the ore supply was gradually exhausted and attention was turned to the vast deposit of iron ore at Bell Island, in Newfoundland, part of which deposit was obtained by the New Glasgow Company in 1894. This organization merged with the Nova Scotia Company, under the name of the Nova Scotia Steel Company, with a capital of $5,000,000.
Limitless coal deposits were there for the mining on the island of Cape Breton. Once they belonged to the Duke of York, brother of George IV, who gave to the Duke a lease of all the minerals in the province. The Duke assigned his holdings to his creditors, the jewellers mostly, who formed the General Mining Association to exploit the fields. The colonists, left out of what was rightfully theirs, protested; the Duke’s lease was taken away, and the Nova Scotian Government was given control of the deposits
Then followed a vacillating period of private ownership, when the mines were worked with haphazard success. The New England coal market was lost by the abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1867, and the coal-mining industry suffered the same set-back as many others which have relied largely on the American market.
In 1893, the Dominion Coal Company was incorporated, acquiring practically all the rights of the companies then existent, and a ninety-nine years lease of the coal along the eastern coast of Cape Breton and in the undersea deposits.
In 1899, a new company, the Dominion Iron & Steel, bought a large section of the Coal Company’s ore-deposits. This company soon established itself at Sydney and merged in 1909 with the Coal Company under the name of the Dominion Steel Corporation. Between this organization and the Nova Scotia Steel Company, at Sydney Mines, there was much competition and interference, due mostly to the Nova Scotia Company having to take its coal from a deposit on the far side of the Dominion Company’s, and being forced to bring their coal through Dominion holdings. Inevitably the two companies united, and out of this tangled and highly complex maze was born in 1921, the British Empire Steel Corporation. From the $4,000 of Fraser and Mackay, the capitalization of the steel industry and coal-mining had grown to $91,164,475, with bonds and debentures of $37,800,000.
The Head and Forefront
WHAT would you expect to find in the person of the chief executive of such a mammoth enterprise? Surely a lion who would growl and fix you with chill and austere eye. I, for one, anticipated something of the sort but I did not know H. J. Kelley, Besco’s general manager.
No growls . . . none. A cheery smile, a warm handclasp, a comfortable chair in
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his quiet sanctum and a good cigar; then a very human talk with this very human, youthful man, who, for thirty years has put his best into the grinding game of steel; who took hold of the moribund and discouraged Besco and in five lively years set it on its feet. Now the coal-mining industry and the other subsidiaries of Besco have just been put for direction into his strong hands, and what he will do with them remains to be seen. But if the work he has done with the steel plant is a criterion of his ability, then they are due for an era of progress and expansion.
There is no nonsense about Mr. Kelley. A pleasing forthrightness, a curt dismissal of his own achievements, characterized his speech. He spoke of his work, of the actual thrill he gets from organization and manipulation on a tremendous scale. He talked of books and men and expounded his own attitude toward a man’s success in life. “The success of any boy or girl in the world,” he said, “depends on this: what you get to do, try to do better than anybody else.” He is closely in touch with his men; they, after all, are the most important and most volatile element with which he has to cope. Men from every nation under the sun work in the shops and mines,
and every man has his problem, each has his special attitude toward his work and the company for which he toils.
“Our growing prosperity,” said Mr. Kelley, “is a reflection of the general prosperity of Canada. Much money is made in wheat, the railroads benefit an-;, expand; we supply some of the materials for their expansion.
“What one man can do in a business like this is lost. Team work is the thing— and the spirit of fairness. Here the man who relies solely upon his own ability makes a big mistake. The attitude of thé men and the community has been against Besco. It can be eliminated by giving the people confidence in us.”
That confidence, which Mr. Kelley has striven for, has been gained. Today the name of Besco provokes a different reaction among the people from that of five years ago. In the forum of the pullmansmoker, they defend it from all attack “They’re going ahead,” these most vocal of observers say. And you can see the truth of that reflected not only in the alert optimism of the executive, but also in the attitude of the men in the great steel plant itself.
They are going ahead.